ON THE LAGOS-IBADAN EXPRESSWAY, Nigeria – For many, this highway leads to the future of the Christian faith, and at 9 p.m. on a Friday night, traffic is heavier than a Los Angeles rush hour.
Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians, from street vendors to computer consultants, sit through the exhaust and the squealing horns to reach evangelical campgrounds with churches as large as airplane hangers.
The names are as spectacular as the hopes they sell: Mountain of Fire and Miracles, Deeper Life, and the largest and oldest, the 5,000-hectare, or 12,000-acre, Redemption Camp.
The worshipers are drawn by a program of rousing song and dance and by an eminently practical gospel promising health and prosperity.
They come seeking quick fortunes or protection against mundane maladies, from hunger to arthritis to armed robbers. They shout hallelujahs until close to daybreak, when the highway, famous for accidents and bandits, is safe to make the crawl back to Lagos, Africa’s most populous city.
Here nobody, it seems, can afford not to pray.
“In countries where everything is very O.K., where they take care of their citizenry, people are very lethargic when it comes to religion and God,” said Oluwayemisi Ojuolape, 27, a lawyer in Lagos, who attended this all-night vigil, called Holy Ghost Service. “They are not encouraged to ask for any help. They seem to have all of it.”
Not so in the developing world, where Christianity is drawing followers as never before.
That growth is changing the complexion and practice of the Christian faith and other religions in a fervid competition for souls, generating new tremors in places like Nigeria, which are already marbled with ethnic and political fault lines, and causing schisms between the old Christians of the Northern Hemisphere and the newer ones of the Southern. It is also beginning to be felt in the political life of these countries.
The new Christian expansion is particularly striking in Pentecostalism, a denomination born only about 100 years ago among blacks, whites and Hispanics in an abandoned church in Los Angeles.
Emphasizing a direct line to God, its boisterous, unmediated style of worship employs healings, speaking in tongues and casting out demons.
Spreading Pentecostal congregations – a quarter of all Christians worldwide – are bumping up against established Christian churches as well as Islam in Africa, and chipping away at what has long been a virtual Roman Catholic monopoly in Latin America.
In Brazil, where the national identity has been intertwined with Catholicism since the Portuguese landed 500 years ago, the emotional jam-packed services at thousands of Pentecostal churches amount to a religious revolution in the world’s largest Catholic country.
In the 25 years of John Paul II’s papacy, Brazil’s Protestant population has quadrupled, with the biggest surge coming in the 1990′s among evangelical and Pentecostal groups. More than 25 million Brazilians belong to such churches, leaving pastors like Ezequiel Teixeira of the New Life Project Church in Rio de Janeiro so giddy that he confidently predicts, “In another 25 years, Brazil will have a Protestant majority.”
By some estimates, more than a third of Guatemala’s population is now Protestant, and Pentecostal churches are making significant inroads in Argentina, Colombia and Chile, where Catholics account for 70 percent of the population.
Across the global south, Christian worship, especially Pentecostalism, has captured hearts and minds in countries where governments cannot be trusted to provide running water, let alone sound schools or hospitals, and where the precariousness of ordinary living – blackouts, robbery, disease, corruption – makes rich and poor alike turn to divine intervention.
“It allows for spiritual or divine agency, so that God has the power to fix and heal and also to protect you,” said Lamin Sanneh, a professor at Yale Divinity School who specializes in West Africa. “You might fall into a ditch, or you might be in a car accident, roads such as they are. You are always in present danger.
“Pentecostalism speaks that language very well.”
In Africa, a big part of the success of Pentecostal movements, scholars say, rests on the ability to tap into traditional cosmology – one in which the gods have long been solicited in pursuit of specific, worldly favors.
“God has become a modern-day juju God,” said ChiChi Aniagolu, a Nigerian sociologist and a Catholic who, by her own admission, dips into Pentecostal services. “You appease him. You bring him yams, goats, make sacrifices, and you get what you want. Today, you’re not making sacrifices. You’re giving tithes.”
Churches have become formidable economic empires. Most troubling to critics is the enrichment of enterprising evangelical preachers, who say their fine cars and expensive suits can convince others of what God’s grace can provide.
Critics charge them with duping the poor and doing little to ease poverty or repair endemic corruption.
Yet their appeal has seemingly been irresistible. Worship today is a far cry from the rituals once imposed by European missionaries.
Services are conducted in Swahili and Igbo. Playing the drum is no longer a “sin.” Most of all, services can be much livelier than their European antecedents.
“I was in Rome the other day and I found the way they celebrate the Eucharist a bit boring,” said Bishop Anthony Ireri Mukobo, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Nairobi.
From the stage at the Redemption Camp outside Lagos on a recent evening came a gospel of success.
“There will be no more sickness,” sang Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the general overseer of the vast empire known as the Redeemed Church of Christ.
“Yes, Lord, I believe,” the worshippers, more than 100,000 of them, sang back.
“There will be no more failure,” the pastor sang.
“Yes, Lord, I believe,” answered the crowd. “Yes, Lord.”
Like other proponents of prosperity theology, the pastor likes to remind his congregation that God multiplies what the faithful give to the church. “If you don’t sow, you don’t reap,” he says.
“I have heard God speak,” the pastor went on, “and I can tell you, I have heard the sound of abundance.”
Abundance certainly has come to the Redeemed Church. There are 5,000 Redeemed parishes worldwide, about 4,000 of them in Nigeria, Adeboye said in an interview.
A former mathematics professor close to the Nigerian president, Adeboye could only estimate the total membership at around two million.
Asked about church revenues, he demurred, saying only, “By the grace of God, we are able to take care of our ministers.”
There are some 40,000 of them. The church has built a school and a health clinic at Redemption Camp. A university is under construction.
The congregants are by no means all in need. Emmanuel Dania, a tall, fit, British-educated computer consultant, rolled into the VIP parking area of Redemption Camp in an air-conditioned white Toyota pickup truck, then high-fived a friend who had arrived in his own chauffeur-driven BMW. A beggar was quickly turned away.
Dania regularly worships at an affiliated church in a stylish section of Lagos, where he has found a network of like-minded, upwardly mobile young Nigerians. Some months ago, Dania said, he had bid on a project with the Central Bank of Nigeria. The official in charge of the contract was a member of the same church.
“He said he was so happy he was dealing with a man of God,” Dania recalled. “You can actually do business in the church. You don’t have to go anywhere else. There’s a lot of prosperity in the church.”
Many traditional Christian theologians, particularly Catholics, dismiss the message that faith will bring wealth and success.
“They’re preaching cross-less Christianity,” said the Reverend Iheanyi Enwerem, of the Catholic Secretariat in Lagos. “The idea of everything joy-joy, prosperity-prosperity, well-well. In life, there are certain things we can’t have because God doesn’t want it. For them, everything is Easter joy, no Good Friday. We say it’s totally un-Christian.”
But for the poor, the very presence of the rich in the same sanctuary serves as a powerful lesson, much like the testimonials that those who say they are miraculously healed deliver from the altar: If God answered their prayers, maybe he will answer mine.
Iwalola Adebusoye, 40, sells rice at a Lagos market. At Redemption Camp, she stood from her seat, closed her eyes, put her hands on her hips and spat her prayers in rapid-fire Yoruba, as though shouting at a no-good deceiving husband.
Uneducated herself, she said she had put three children through school on her earnings selling rice. She was now praying for a “breakthrough” – an opportunity to expand her trade, maybe sell eggs. “To move forward,” she said in halting English.
“No helper,” she said of her predicament. “Only God. And Jesus.”
Such predicaments are also widespread in Brazil. Like many Brazilian Pentecostals, Manoel Ferreira was born in the poverty-stricken interior into what he calls “a fervently Catholic family,” but converted after migrating to a large city, São Paulo.
While being trained to join the state police in the early 1950′s, Ferreira was accidentally shot by a fellow cadet. The wound became infected, he remembers, and he feared he was going to die.
“In those days, only Roman Catholic chaplains were allowed into hospitals,” he recalled during an interview in a working-class neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. “But a male nurse who was an evangelical preached clandestinely to me, and as soon as I was released I made my way to the Assembly of God, and never left.”
Today, the denomination that Ferreira heads as bishop of the Assembly of God is the largest of its kind in Brazil, with 8.8 million members, according to the Brazilian census of 2000, and more than 100,000 churches.
Founded in 1910 by missionaries from Chicago, the Assembly of God in Brazil now sends missionaries abroad and has spawned dozens of other Pentecostal denominations, with colorful names like Church of Christ’s Spit.
These Pentecostal churches have made a special effort to appeal to women, who often complain of being limited to a supporting role in the Catholic Church. The Pentecostal movement, in contrast, encourages them to be more than wives and mothers: deaconesses, missionaries, even pastors.
“I thought that it was my destiny to suffer, because I had been taught as a Catholic to accept the fate God had for me,” said Josefa Barros de Sousa, who migrated from Paraíba, a poor northern state, to Rio de Janeiro to work as a nanny. “No one recognized me or my suffering, until I got here and learned that I could talk to God myself and didn’t need a priest or saints to do that for me.”
Pentecostal churches have been quick to exploit the potential of television with innovative programming, like that of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Brazil’s fastest-growing denomination. Begun in a funeral parlor in Rio de Janeiro in 1977, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Brazil’s fastest-growing denomination, has grown from 200,000 members at the start of the 1990′s to more than two million today. It owns a leading television network and substantial real estate holdings, and has worked to elect 22 of its members to Congress.
Belatedly, the Catholic Church is responding with a movement that has come to be known as Charismatic Renewal, borrowing Pentecostal thunder, including speaking in tongues.
Services that incorporate rock-style hymns and intense devotion to the Virgin Mary have made the Reverend Marcelo Rossi, 36, of São Paulo, a pop star who sells millions of CD’s. In October he is starring in a movie in which he plays the archangel Gabriel.
But the Pentecostal movement continues to grow. Besides Catholicism, it aggressively challenges Brazil’s traditional animist cults like candomblé, macumba and umbanda, which have many of the same African roots as Caribbean cults like voodoo and santería and are practiced by millions of Brazilians who consider themselves Catholics.
Yet part of what draws followers may be a certain stylistic resemblance: The trance-like state of Pentecostalists speaking in tongues resembles that of macumba adherents when they are “receiving a saint.”
The chief appeal, however, appears to lie in preachers who offer rural newcomers advice on adjusting to blighted, violent urban neighborhoods, and a gospel of self-esteem, a message of empowerment.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that you are nothing,” Sílvio Pereira, a 30-year-old Assembly of God preacher told worshippers at a small church on the outskirts of Salvador da Bahia, in northern Brazil. “Raise your head high because God wants to use you. You are dynamite in the hands of God.”
The expanded Christian following in the developing world has translated into increasing power, both within developing countries and within mainstream denominations.
As church attendance has withered in Europe, senior Vatican officials and Roman Catholic leaders recognize and look to the developing world as fertile ground for conversions and growth, a place where the faith takes firmer root than it does in Europe or North America these days. Indeed, the successor to Pope John Paul II could be a Latin American or African cardinal.
The growing assertion of the Christian South in the United States is provoking fierce doctrinal arguments, too, often over worshipers’ preference for literal readings of the Bible, and a conservative view on social issues.
The Anglican Communion meets this week to heal an unprecedented rift over homosexuality, a charge led by the head of the Church of Nigeria, which, with 18 million congregants, is the largest member of the Anglican Communion.
Tensions extend to the political sphere. The proliferation of Islamic law in northern Nigeria, which has set off rioting that has killed hundreds, is widely seen as the Muslim elite’s response to Nigeria’s new, hard-line Christianity.
Throughout Africa, the rivalry between Christianity and Islam, from Sudan to Ivory Coast, is growing.
In Nigeria, a nation of 130 million that accounts for one-fifth of Africa’s population, the rivalry is so intense that it has been impossible for the government even to conduct a census to know the numbers of each group.
Christian missionaries have been dispatched to open schools and parishes in northern Muslim strongholds. Church leaders have spoken out loudly against the re-introduction of Islamic law into several state penal codes. Rioting has divided cities where Muslim and Christian neighbors once lived side by side.
In the view of critics, the flourishing of Christianity has only added to Nigeria’s poverty and corruption.
“The movement is clearly reflective of everything that’s wrong with Nigeria,” charged Nosa Igiebor, the outspoken editor of Tell, a weekly news magazine. “Poor people are forced to pay these tithes, and by doing so, every problem they take to the pastor will be solved.”
But, she continued, “the pastors know it won’t be. Just the same way our political leaders deceive people, by making promises they have no intention to keep.”
Under the rule of President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a born-again Christian, church sermons are broadcast all weekend long on state-run television. So too is the presidential chaplain’s Sunday service from the presidential villa in the capital, Abuja.
In response to Muslim complaints, the television also broadcasts clips from Friday Prayers at the National Mosque in Abuja.
The Christian resurgence has led a group of young urban Muslim professionals to create a Pentecostal-style movement of their own. On Sunday mornings in a central Lagos parking lot, men and women sit in separate tents. Volunteers collect prayer requests, just as at Redeemed Church.
On a recent Sunday, the requests themselves were remarkably similar, too. One man wanted the congregation to pray for his visa interview at the United States Embassy that coming Thursday. A young woman wanted blessings for her university entrance exam.
“If you have belief, if you have courage that it is Allah that grants everyone’s desire, then within a short time of coming here, your prayer will be answered,” said Oriyomi Musbau Hussein, 31, a civil servant, who asked the congregation to pray for his visa application.
The group calls itself the Nasrul-Lahi-Il-Fathi Society of Nigeria, or Nasfat. What began eight years ago at a banker’s house today boasts 80 branches in Nigeria and three in the United States and Britain.
Nasfat has purchased 40 hectares of land on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway as well, where the group intends to build a retreat and a university, not unlike Redemption Camp.
“We are pace-setting,” Oki said. “We don’t want to do it the old way.”